Well, I have to say that the name threw me off course. I was expecting a seventeen stone blues shouter, but I was way off the mark. The core of Big Sadie’s actually two people; Elise Bergman (upright bass and vocals) and Collin Moore (guitar and vocals). They’re from Chicago, they’ve been together about ten years, “Keep Me Waiting” is their debut album and it’s a beautiful piece of work which reveals something different with every listen. It has that intimate feel that comes from recording the songs as if the band were playing a gig.

Elise and Collin have amassed a considerable repertoire of traditional songs, but “Keep Me Waiting” is all about their originals, split absolutely equally between the two. The quality of the songs is exceptional; apart from the instrumental “Anni’s Orchard”, each song is a perfectly constructed vignette where the vocal and instrumental arrangements enhance the message of the song. The opener, “Danny“, gives some idea of what’s to come with a neatly-told story of the ex-lover coming back to town and the futility of trying to recapture past relationships, set in a slow arrangement of banjo, upright bass and mournful fiddle. Oh, and gorgeous harmonies.

The two waltz-time songs on the album, “Before Morning” with Collin’s vocal and “Good Woman” with Elise leading, are given a melancholy feel by fiddle parts as they tell everyday stories of breakups and domestic drudgery respectively; the subject matter may be sorrowful, but the delivery is powerfully uplifting. Choosing standouts is difficult, the whole album is pure quality, but I’ll have a go anyway.

Baby it Ain’t You“, is a slow country song with a powerful lead vocal from Elise and some perfect three-part harmonies in the refrain, and the title track acts as a showcase for the band’s individual and collective talents with the usual nailed-on harmonies and lots of solos. The perfect way to end a live set.

“Keep Me Waiting” is a masterful distillation of traditional playing styles and original songwriting across a wide variety of styles, from the Patsy Cline feel of “Baby it Ain’t You” to the pure bluegrass of the title song. The lead vocals and the harmonies are superb throughout and the band is completely convincing. You really should give it a listen.

“Keep Me Waiting” is released in the UK on Friday September 29th on Spindle Tree Records.

And yet another album from an artist with over fifty years of music-making, including thirty albums, behind him. “Bone on Bone” is his first album in six years and it’s a timely reminder of the quality of his acoustic playing and the depth of his songwriting. You wouldn’t say “Bone on Bone” was an easy listen lyrically; there are apocalyptic visions, environmental concerns and religious references alongside Bruce Cockburn’s robust and assured finger-picking. As good as the songs are, it’s his playing that stands out for me as he moves between standard acoustic, resonator and twelve-string acoustic, even including a guitar instrumental, the title track, finger-picked over a relentlessly repeated single note thumbed in the bass. And, as an interesting little aside for you, the lyric booklet is in English and French although only “Mon Chemin” is actually sung in French. If you know a bit of French, you can pick out subtle additional layers of meaning from the translations – the album’s opening song “States I’m In” translates literally as “My States of Soul”.

The album may be dominated by Bruce Cockburn’s acoustic playing, but that doesn’t mean that it’s predictable with styles ranging from the bluesy and slightly sardonic “Café Society” to the gospel feel of “Jesus Train” and the zydeco rockabilly of “Stab at Matter”. And it’s good to hear flugelhorn player Ron Miles adding some mellow brass voicings to the mix. What about the standouts? Well, “States I’m In” is difficult to beat with its almost-stream-of-consciousness lyrics stretching the song out to nearly six minutes, while “3 Al Purdys” is a vision of a manic street orator offering to recite three Al Purdy poems for twenty dollars.

The subject matter of the album is complex and, unlike our politicians on both sides of the pond, Bruce Cockburn doesn’t try to tell us that there are easy answers. There are lots of religious references, but these are much about the artist exploring his own relationship with his faith, rather than trying to sell a particular vision. “Bone on Bone” is a confident and mature album that doesn’t shy away from exploring complexity and resists easy paths. Recommended for anyone that’s happy to put in a bit of effort to get the most out of an album.

“Bone on Bone” is released in the UK on Friday September 15th on True North Records (TND678).

I don’t know why the idea of Scandinavian Americana should have seemed so strange at first; significant numbers of Scandinavians emigrated to the USA in the nineteenth century and it’s reasonable to assume that they brought their own flavours to America’s rich musical stew and that there would still be a cultural connection. Turns out that Americana is big in that part of northern Europe, both in homegrown and imported flavours, and that’s where Buford Pope (real name Mikael Liljeborg) comes in. Although he references Dylan as a touchstone, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons with Neil Young (particularly the Stray Gators phase) because of the high, keening voice and the plaintive pedal steel licks that permeate the album.

For his seventh album Buford Pope has opted for the naturalistic approach; learn the songs, get the right technical set-up and go in and play them once. And it works, although the album’s opening song “Still Got Dreams” is a bit too lo-fi for my taste. The lyrics deal with familiar roots themes: guns, drinking, driving (sometimes both at the same time) and families all feature in the mix. The recording process gives the album an intimacy and immediacy that recording tracks separately can never quite capture and highlights the interplay between the instruments, particularly the combination of slide or pedal steel and piano on “Infirmary” and “No Man’s Land”.

Standout songs? Well, the big chorus of “Freewheeling” and the epic Al Stewart feel of “The Baltic Sea” certainly do it for me.

“Blue-Eyed Boy” is released on Friday September 22 on Unchained Records (BP2017).

As good as it is to hear music from new artists, there’s something very satisfying about a new album from someone who’s been around for a while. In the case of Paul Brady, ‘around for a while’ is understating slightly. At the age of seventy and with a career in music spanning over fifty years, he’s someone who knows a thing or two about writing a great song and “Unfinished Business” is exactly the album you would expect from an artist with Paul Brady’s reputation and experience. There are eleven songs: two are interpretations of traditional songs and nine originals which are co-writes with either Paul Muldoon, Sharon Vaughn or Ralph Murphy. It’s a thoroughbred of an album; perfectly proportioned and without an ounce of flab. It’s all about delivering the best possible interpretation of every song. 

What about the raw material, the songs? Well, Paul Brady isn’t resting on his laurels; he’d probably get vertigo if he did. The nine originals here are beautifully crafted pieces of work. I hesitate to use the phrase ‘songwriters’ songwriter’ because of its elitist implications, but Paul Brady’s a master craftsman whose work satisfies the professionals and the fans alike as he glides effortlessly across styles on this deceptively simple but gloriously effective album. And, as if that wasn’t enough, he still has a powerful soulful voice as well. 

The album begins with the title track, and it’s a perfect piece of understatement with some delicate jazzy piano, upright bass and gorgeous harmonies in the chorus with a romantic message. The equally enchanting “Once In a Lifetime” towards the end of the album is in a similar vein, with the addition of some plaintive steel; you won’t hear a better pair of love songs on an album this year. 

But it’s not all love songs on “Unfinished Business”; “I Love You But You Love Him” is a funky take on the ‘opposites attract’ theme, “Maybe Tomorrow” is Celtic-tinged rock while “Say You Don’t Mean” is a pulsing, erudite putdown of a bystander critic. The originals are every bit as good as you would expect from Paul Brady, while the two traditional songs are given fairly modern musical settings, particularly the album’s closer, “Lord Thomas & Lady Ellender” which Paul has apparently been playing live for fifty years. 

One word – superb. 

“Unfinished Business” is released on Friday September 8 on Proper Records.

Let’s get this out of the way right from the start; Sarah Rodriguez, singer and keyboard player with The Hallows, sounds a bit like Kate Bush. There, I’ve said it now. I’m also going to say that she doesn’t do any of the piercing, high-register, polystyrene on a window stuff that Kate Bush inclines towards, so that’s pretty much a win-win. “Of Time and Tides” has an identity and sense of cohesion that isn’t always apparent in early albums. There’s a sense of assurance about the way the album’s produced as well; there’s nothing tentative about this album.

The songs are all strong, well-constructed and with memorable melodies, but the real selling points for the album are the varied arrangements and use of a huge dynamic range throughout. The studio versions of the songs are liberally sprinkled with fairy dust in the form of layered, multi-tracked and counterpoint vocals, strings, samples, acoustic and electric guitars, pianos and synths. Each of the songs has its own distinct character with Sarah’s bold and distinctive vocals creating a cohesive unity for the album.

As you might expect with a trio format of drums (Joe Rodriguez), Dave Pugh (bass) and Sarah Rodriguez (keys and vocals) the basslines are more than just a solid bottom end; there’s plenty of melody there as well. Who needs a lead guitar player anyway? If one song encapsulates the spirit of this album, it’s “Angel”, where strummed acoustic guitars, layered vocals and shimmering guitars give way to an absolutely monstrous bass riff as the band briefly demonstrates its heavy credentials before sliding back into ethereal mode again for the finish of the song.

And a word to the wise here. This isn’t a studio confection; the band’s more than capable of creating a huge sound when they play live and Sarah Rodriguez’s vocals sound, if anything, even better in that situation. You can hear for yourself at these gigs.

“Of Time and Tides” is released on Friday August 25th.

“Angel”? Oh, go on then:

Don’t you just love it when the opening song of an album kicks down the doors and bursts in without even wiping its feet? That’s exactly what “The Hammer and The Heart” does. “Work Hard, Love Harder” is a joyous, uplifting power pop anthem with chiming Byrds/Flaming Groovies guitars and a perfectly simple message; we need more love. You only need to hear it once and you’ll be playing it back mentally for months afterwards. It only needs one tastemaker at Radio Two to get behind this one and millions of people will be singing along; trust me. But I wouldn’t want you to think that “Work Hard…” is the only great song on this album. 

Actually, the term ‘album’ doesn’t really do it justice; the press release describes it as a double album, but it’s really two distinct albums, one uptempo and mainly electric, the other mainly acoustic and with a more contemplative feel. “Work Hard…” opens both albums, with backing from The Bottle Rockets on album one and a string band version backed by The Boxcar Lilies (such a great name) on album two and the two versions highlight the importance of the song to Susan Cattaneo and its place as a pivot for both albums. 

Across the eighteen songs you won’t find even an average one; they’re all superbly crafted and majestically realised and it’s difficult to pick out highlights, but let’s give it a go anyway. “In The Grooves” is a rockabilly stomper looking back to the golden era of the vinyl 45 (complete with Scotty Moore-style guitar solo), while “When Love Goes Right” is a gorgeous duet with Bill Kirchen turning the cliché of young love upside down and telling the story of lasting love. On the folkier second album, you can clearly hear the influence of Joni Mitchell and there are explorations of political and environmental themes in “Eveybody Cryin’ Mercy” and “Field of Stone”. And there’s even a gently-paced Bowie cover (“Space Oddity”) with lovely vocal harmonies to close the second album. 

If you want eighteen classy songs played by some superb musicians, you’ve come to the right place; “The Hammer and the Heart” is an unmissable collection. And how about finishing with a lyric from the album’s anthem: ‘The heart beats louder than the dollar, shines a light in a world gone darker, draws joy in permanent marker’. That’s the message for you; “Work Hard, Love Harder”. 

“The Hammer and the Heart” is released on Friday August 25 2017 on Jersey Girl Records.